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Josh Rouse
 by Martin Williams / pictures by Paul Heartfield

Josh Rouse by Paul HeartfieldYou could say it was all John Hughes' fault. If it weren't for that magic handful of '80's flicks in which the Chicago writer/director chalked out the Bratpack blueprint then Josh Rouse might still be staring out of his Mid-west window. As it is his debut album, Dressed Up Like Nebraska, has been on the shelves for several months now, a record that sleepily thumbs its nose at neat categorisation. Not that this diminutive Nebraskan is blazing any particular avant-garde trail with his sombre, heartfelt clutch of songs. Just that none of the easy monikers- country, pop, country-pop- quite cuts the mustard.

After soundchecking with the Cure's Why Can't I Be You he tells me, I got turned onto that stuff by John Hughes soundtracks. They had Psychedelic Furs, Echo & The Bunnymen, New Order, The Smiths. I loved them.

In finest outlaw style Josh Rouse's twenty six years have been divided between the road and a succession of short-stay homes. Nebraska, California, Utah, Wyoming, Georgia, Tennesse, Arizona, South Dakota. The list of places he called home before the age of 20 reads like a U.S. route map.
In small towns it's hard to get hold of music like that or hear it, he continues. You're not going to hear it on the radio. I'd watch the movies and go, 'Wow, what's this great music?' And then I'd go pick up the records from there."

Do you feel that this itinerant life has shaped you?
Well, it's shaped me as a person, I think. I grew up pretty quick. At a young age I was much more mentally mature than a lot of people my age. My mom and dad were divorced when I was like two and I lived in with my mom for a while and she remarried my stepfather who was kind of a wild guy. He was a crazy guy, did a lot of drugs. The mid-west is a very conservative place and very small, everybody knows everybody, so everybody knew what was going on with that and it was embarrassing to me when I was younger. I was embarrassed by him in general.

Tired of this peripatetic Absolutely Fabulous-style existence, when Josh turned 16 he moved in with his father. A strict military man, this situation brought its own complications.
A day after graduation I moved out. And that was a big problem with him. A lot of the songs on the record are either about being embarrassed of my step-father and him dying and the emotional impact on me or, y'know, not getting along with my father well.

Under the spell of a Neil Young-fixated uncle, Josh began writing songs when he was 18. But it was only when he moved to Nashville, after a succession of half-hearted bands that things started falling together.
Well, actually, what I did was I pretty much just sat on my couch.

In Nashville Josh hooked up with David Henry, sometime Cowboy Junkie and his collaborator on Dressed Up Like Nebraska.
He had an ad. in a paper that said, 'cello player- just got off tour with the Cowboy Junkies.' I called him up and we did a couple of gigs and the first demo that we did was the one that got all the interest, so it really clicked, y'know.

Was David Henry's role that of a kind of musical director?
Yeah, in keeping consistent with my guitar playing. Not any arrangements or anything like that, or any melodies. He has a really good attitude, he never really gets down. Where I'll get depressed and be like, 'I suck,' he'll be like 'no, no, you don't suck. Let's try again.

A year after recording your debut, are you satisfied with the results?
Recording a record is funny because that's really just one take of something you can do in a lot of different ways. The single they put out in America, Late Night Conversation, isn't the best time we've done it, y'know. It's just kind of, 'that's the song, lets just do it and get it down.' I'm really not into perfection. I like mistakes and I like to hear them, I like it to be a little rough around the edges.

With the upbeat rawk of a song like A Simple Thing and the slow build of Flair and The White Trash Period Of My Life, Dressed Up Like Nebraska evenly mixes a kind of mellow pop with stripped, rustic country flavours, falling somewhere between Matthew Sweet and Mark Eitzel.
I think I blend the two, he says. I consider myself a pop artist. I like songs with subtle hooks to them and a nice feel, not cheesy like, y'know, like a lot of radio pop is. Old Cure is pop music to me, they're great songs and there's a hook to them but there's depth as well. But I'm also, like, a Mark Eitzel fan and he's not about that at all.

But even the more radio-friendly songs from the album, like Suburban Sweetheart and Late Night Conversation, have a relaxed quality to them.
I like music I can put on and sit around my house to and lay on my couch and listen to and really enjoy, more than music I'd put on and go out to on Friday night and party to. I just don't do that, I don't live that type of lifestyle.

As well as an EP with Lambchop in the near future Josh has a more somnolent project hibernating.
I have this idea in my mind of doing an EP called Six Songs To Help You Sleep. Very laid back. They're songs but they're very atmospheric, y'know: lap steel, a lot of delay on them, just really eerie. A lot of the songs I have written are in the same key and the same feel. I think it's a great idea. I don't know anybody who's really done it.

Like a musical version of those New Age tapes?
I like to go to sleep with the stereo on, I don't get a chance to do it much any more, but right around when I started playing music I would go to sleep with the headphones on. I think somehow that gets planted into your subconscious, y'know, when you're sleeping at night somehow it gets in there.

Snooze Rock, anyone?

CWAS #4 - Winter 1998/9 - The Lost Issue